Chapter 1

The restaurant was packed, unsurprising on a Friday night.It brimmed with urbanites seeking some tie-loosening after the extra demanding work week following the holiday season. The food was authentic Japanese, the bar had a well-stocked collection of wine, liquor and beer, and the music never reached nerve-wracking decibels. It was the perfect watering hole tucked in a side street of the busy Makati business district.

But the first thing that entered Rory's mind was: Ostentatious place, pretentious crowd.

Smoothing the smirk that automatically creased her upper lip, she scanned the room to locate the staircase leading to the upper floor. She slowly waded through the sea of bodies either in sharp charcoal blazers or glittering, skin-tight skirts. Her second thought was: God, you spend so much on a bag, but I bet you still live with your parents.

The flight up the stairs was slow as well, even though the steps were not crowded. Truth was, Rory felt a tense zing in her footing. She grasped the railing on one hand and her dependable black leather tote on the other, both with unnecessary tightness. Why am I here? I could be safe at home, snuggling in bed with my cat. Oh wait – I don't even have a cat.

Okay, I'm nervous, Rory admitted to herself as she finally had both feet on the landing, acknowledging the cold, uncomfortable sensation creeping up her spine. And I've every reason to be.

Propped on the table a few steps away was a tent card that said "Gobsmacked and Knackered: A Speed Dating Event". Under the title, in a smaller font, was "Common Ground Events".

Gobsmacked and knackered. How fitting.

A girl in an emerald green brocade dress stood behind the table. "Rory!" Sarah called excitedly, rushing towards her. "Wasn't The Gift the best idea ever?"

I'm so killing you for this, Rory thought as their cheeks touched in greeting.

Registered under the name Mastermind in Rory's phone, Sarah was the one who engineered this stupid, childish scheme called The Gift a few weeks ago, the same one that had brought Rory to this moment.

Instead of giving presents on birthdays or during Christmas, just because they practically had everything they ever wanted in the world, Sarah had proposed that Rory just do one simple task for her. "Sort of like Truth or Dare, without the Truth part," Sarah had explained breezily.

The one single rule to this was simple: she couldn't say no. Sarah, of course, would do the same.

Easy, Rory had reasoned. And just as she had shrugged a non-committal yes while sipping the overpriced glass of wine that her best friend had practically shoved into her hand, Sarah blurted out her brilliant idea: speed dating.

Narrowed eyes, flared nostrils, gritted teeth – Sarah ignored them. She explained how this speed dating thing wasn't meant to pressure Rory into a relationship, but just to "open opportunities". Rory rolled her eyes at her friend's penchant for clichés.

"I thought I already had everything?" she deadpanned.

Sarah couldn't meet her stare, hiding behind her huge wine glass. "You do, you do," her friend was quick to respond. "But what's wrong with wanting more, right?"

Rory's eyebrows instantly shot up. "Sarah, I don't think – "

"I already have a working title." Sarah cleared her throat dramatically. "Gobsmacked and Knackered! The difference between this and other speed dating events is the open bar. That's why it's Gobsmacked and Knackered!"

"I'm not sure everybody would understand what that means. I'm not even sure if I understand it," Rory said.

"They can always Google it. But, Rory – open bar! Who can say no to that?"

Apparently I can't. "People who don't drink for a living?" she quipped sarcastically.

Sarah's eyes narrowed. "Are you just shooting this down because you don't want to go?"

"I'm not shooting this down because I don't want to go!" Rory retorted defensively. "It's because…it's because…" She couldn't really think of a reason, except for the fact that, well, she didn't really want to go.

Sarah saw right through her. "Oh, come on!" Her friend's voice took on an annoyed edge. "You already said yes."

"I only said yes because I didn't think your scheming, manipulative – "

"Rory, please." The tone swiftly turned beseeching. "It's Common Ground's first event. Remember the Sarah-Mason Wedding Fund?"

Rory sighed. Dangling the dream she and Mason had since forever was all it took for Rory to gulp down the remnants of her wine and give in. She couldn't say no to allowing her friend to exit three years of executive assistant hell under their company's bitchy CEO. She couldn't say no to helping out in the Wedding Fund when she was one of Sarah's bridesmaids. She couldn't really say no, could she?

Rory caught sight of herself on the mirrored wall and immediately scowled at her reflection. It was pretty apparent by now that Sarah had concocted The Gift just to force her into this "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". It wasn't a secret that her friend had been wheedling and cajoling her into seeking some "new adventures" in her life.

On a good day, Rory could make herself admit that she needed a dose of just that. The predictable tight ponytail, practical low-heeled pumps and matching tote that completed her rather boring day-to-day office ensemble had probably run its course – which was the last four years since she had started working.

Not that anything more flamboyant was demanded from a market research analyst, she thought dryly. What was so wrong with being properly dressed in the corporate world? Nothing. But she did have secret wardrobe fantasies, just like any other girl who grew up reading those blasted fashion magazines. The latest included a pair of leather studded booties she knew her savings account could afford, but her conscience couldn't. She was only 24 anyway – she probably could pull it off, right? In her dreams, maybe.

It couldn't hurt to go on some casual dates either. Not just to permanently get Charlie off her back, her one and only ex-boyfriend who refused to get a clue; maybe some company she could actually enjoy and consider getting to know. Perhaps it was that lawyer friend of Mason's who Sarah had been trying to set up with her for the past half year. Jasper or James, was it? Never mind that blind dates were awkward and forced and a stressful example of "trying". After all, it had been more than three years since her catastrophic relationship with Charlie, hadn't it? Not that she was keeping count.

Okay, she was keeping count. Even Sarah and Mason doubtlessly were, what with Rory acting as the third wheel in more than three consecutive Fridates.

But what could she do? The whole process of dating was long, exhausting and harrowing. There was no assurance of an actual relationship forming – or, even looking at it in the shorter term, a good lay. And I only mean a passing mark. Not even great, nowhere near mind blowing. No need for cuddling or words of awe or adoration. He could at least pretend to care that I reached orgasm, right?

Oh my God, it's been that long! My standards have reached rock bottom.

The self-deprecating laugh that sputtered out of her mouth brought Rory back to the restaurant and her reflection in the mirror, garbed in a black shift dress, a white cardigan and that perpetual ponytail. Her earlier anxiety returned, squishing any chance of taking the cardigan off or applying the bolder, seldom-used red lip color at the bottom of her makeup bag.

If I had balls, they would be in my throat right now.

"I don't care that you're late, but for heaven's sakes, take that granny sweater off!" Sarah commanded, reaching behind her friend's back and yanking the cardigan down by the collar. "And stop overanalyzing everything!" Rory had no time to protest, because Sarah had already forced her through the hall, the sweater now gripped tightly in her friend's hand.

Overanalyzing? Who does that? I never over –

"Rory," Mason greeted her warmly, holding his arms out to envelope her in his usual bear hug. "You made it."

"You guys have a lot of very lonely friends," she grinned weakly, looking around at the other speed dating participants.

But she couldn't return the cheek-kiss that Mason pressed against her face. She couldn't understand the suddenly garbled words created by Sarah's excited, high-pitched voice. She couldn't remember the name of the two random guys Mason had introduced her to and whose hands she briefly clasped and shook.

To say Rory Madrigal was distracted was an understatement.

At the opposite side of the room, leaning casually against the bar, looking bored and uninterested, was Jackson Cortez.

Ten years ago.

High school.


After midnight.

First kiss.

First… Rory couldn't even allow herself to say the words in her mind.

Jackson Cortez. He towered over the crowd even now. His face had aged well, losing the softness and pimple marks of adolescence. His jaw was stronger and more angular. His fair skin had tanned. His body filled out the khaki blazer well. Crush-worthy then – incredibly hot now.

And just as Rory realized she had to stop gawking at him and look away, Jackson shifted his position and turned her way. And just like those horrible rom-com movie clichés that Sarah loved so much, their gazes locked. And held.

For a moment, Rory wasn't certain that he recognized her.

But Jackson's facial muscles slowly relaxed. His eyes crinkled, his jaw slackened and his lips oh-so slowly curled up into the slightest of smiles. He raised a hand, with the slightest flick of the pointer finger, to greet her.

Fuck. That term rarely formed even in her thoughts, but it perfectly described what she was feeling at that exact, body-numbing moment. Her mouth went desert-dry, her stomach clenched.

Jackson detached himself from the bar. In a few strides, he already was standing before her. When he didn't bend down to press his cheek against hers, the disappointment she felt was swift and biting.

"Aurora Madrigal."

Nobody called her Aurora, except her mother and, in the rare occasion that she saw him, her father. It was almost a deep, dark secret, something she disclosed on a need-to-know basis. To her ears, Aurora sounded ancient. But hearing him say it now, his brow creased and his eyes appraising her every movement, it sounded sensual.

"Jackson Cortez." The one that got away.

"The one that got away," he murmured, echoing her thoughts and making her pulse careen crazily.

Incredibly hot fit him perfectly – so perfectly that it was easy to forget that Mason was there. A quick glance at him showed that his eyebrows had rocketed up the sky. "You know each other?"

"You can say we're…childhood sweethearts." There was a wicked thought that danced in Jackson's mind. She could see it in his eyes. It made her skin feel warm under the light material of her dress.

Mason laughed, oblivious to the heated, non-verbal exchange. "So what was the point of setting you guys up?"

Set up? You mean Jackson is that lawyer friend? How could Sarah not tell me this? she thought indignantly. She quickly remembered her friend had mentioned a James. How could she forget such an unforgettable name as Jackson?

Sarah's voice came over the speakers. "Are you all ready to be gobsmacked and knackered?"

As Rory turned away to direct her attention to Sarah, Jackson leaned down from behind. "I sure am," he said, his voice soft so only she could hear.

If I had balls, they have just been yanked away.